Reflections on the Challenger Disaster 25 Years Later
On the morning of January 28th, 1986, N.A.S.A.’s Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all seven crew members—Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and civilian Christa McAuliffe (who was slated to become the first teacher in space). Adding to the shock and consternation of the fatal explosion was the fact that the accident was broadcast live on CNN and was being simultaneously shown at countless schools across the United States in recognition of McAuliffe’s involvement with N.A.S.A.’s “Teacher in Space Project.” When the space shuttle exploded, word of the accident disseminated faster than any other American news event since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. More troubling was reality that more children than adults likely witnessed the event while at school that day. President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation later that evening in lieu of the scheduled State of the Union address, hoping to calm the grieving public. The ensuing media coverage zeroed in on the “human element” of the disaster, namely the astronauts themselves; however, Christa McAuliffe’s death attracted the most attention due to her non-astronaut status and largely-symbolic, nontechnical role in the shuttle mission while the “other astronauts” faded into generic anonymity. N.A.S.A., one of the few revered bureaucracies in the United States at the time, garnered intense scrutiny. In many ways the American space program never fully recovered from the damage to its reputation, especially following the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in February 2003.
But what has the Challenger Disaster taught us about how we interpret disaster by engaging mass media?
Not long ago, television was the primary source of rapid-fire information dissemination. Prior to the Internet’s existence, most technologically-mediated communicative receptions in mass society were passively disseminated; that is, they did not usually host contemporaneous expressive interactions like instant messaging or texting, but rather a sender and a receiver who need not directly communicate to convey a message. Despite this, the pervasiveness of television news and “live” reporting promoted a sense of simultaneity for viewers who were symbolically connecting to the events unfolding on the screen. Today, this simulation of connectivity is provided by digital interactions online and through new media technology, which provides an opportunity for quelling the human thirst for understanding (or release of anxiety) following a tragedy.
It is easy to take for granted just how accustomed we have become to witnessing tragedy and disaster unfold on the news. In just the last year, American news media has been saturated with coverage of the BP Oil Spill, a chilling shootout during a Florida School Board meeting, and, most recently, the tragic massacre in Tucson, Arizona. Yet, as harrowing as these events have been, the fact remains that American culture has come to expect (and even demand) all-encompassing coverage following a shocking event. When the going gets tough, the tough seek information.
By closely following a significant disaster or world event, media consumers establish a sense of stability from their new found awareness, which they then use to anticipate or rationalize the causational anxieties which may surface in times of peril. However, when analog news operations fall short of providing such comfort through their broadcasts (or conversely, when they devote too much time to a single news story and flood their programs with recycled facts that fail to advance the current state of knowledge), people individually seek out information through the use of technology in an attempt to make sense of the world as it changes—on their own terms. This occurred in the aftermath of the Challenger Disaster in the form of popular “sick joke” cycles that rhetorically countered the emotional hegemony of broadcast media in reporting the story; they influenced countless subsequent disaster-related joke cycles.
Without question, the subsequent media approaches following major events such as the Challenger Disaster have served to establish contemporary traditions for how the news is now captured and reported. Stepping back reveals clear patterns that have emerged in the reportage of disaster: a focus on the “human element” (specifically a single individual’s story—McAuliffe with the Challenger Disaster; Todd Beamer’s folklorized cry of “let’s roll” in taking back a hijacked plane on 9/11; youngster Charles Evans articulating the frustration of so many during Hurricane Katrina; pilot Chesley Sullenberger after saving passengers from a crashed plane on the Hudson River; Ginger Littleton’s attempt at thwarting gunman Clay Duke from shooting members of a Florida School Board by hitting him with her purse; and so on); addresses by public figures and politicians; and relentless coverage that often replays the most dramatic and violent elements of the story. In all of these cases, a clear desire for resolution, understanding, and solace is palpable.
Nevertheless, 25 years after the Challenger Disaster, we appear to be more accustomed to processing death, disaster, and tragedy as it unfolds than ever before, and with even greater means and desires to consume the unfolding narratives.